It looks increasingly like U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais is in store for a long and hard 2014 campaign, the latest evidence being a fellow Republican who on Thursday said he’s testing the waters to challenge the embattled Jasper physician.
State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lacassas, said he has formed an exploratory committee to “determine the viability of a successful run” against DesJarlais.
The congressman, who has touted his anti-abortion views, was re-elected to a second term over a Democrat in November despite revelations DesJarlais had sexual relationships with two patients and once urged one of them to seek an abortion in 2000.
“The voters have told me a trust has been violated,” Carr said in a statement. “The voters want someone who not only lives by their values but will fight for them.”
He said in a later interview that he believes he is viable given the make-up of his 16-member exploratory committee, which is headed by Nashville auto dealer Lee Beaman, a force in Middle Tennessee conservative circles.
“Given the difficulties he [DesJarlais] has had, the voters are questioning his ability to be effective,” Carr said. “I’m not questioning. He’s said God has forgiven him, and I’m sure God has. ... But I think where the congressman maybe makes a mistake is just because we forgive doesn’t mean a trust hasn’t been violated.”
Carr’s theme was underscored later in the day when Tennessee Democratic Party officials delivered to state health investigators the 679-page transcript of DesJarlais’ 2001 divorce trial.
In the transcript, which Democrats obtained following the election, DesJarlais acknowledged under oath that he had had sex with at least two patients as well as co-workers and a pharmaceutical saleswoman.
While the moves weren’t coordinated, the one-two punch illustrates what DesJarlais can expect over the next two years. Besides Carr, at least three other Republicans, including state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, are looking at GOP primary challenges.
DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said in a statement that “right now Congressman DesJarlais is completely focused on the job he was elected to do by residents of the 4th District: Ending the deficit spending, repealing ObamaCare and returning our government to its proper constitutional role.”
Carr was re-elected last month to a third term in the state House. He hails from Rutherford County, the largest county in the sprawling 16-county 4th Congressional District.
He has drawn attention for his legislative efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants. Last year, he pushed an unsuccessful bill to increase taxes on strippers and adult businesses, linking it to reductions in state taxes on coins, bullion and investment income.
His exploratory committee allows him to raise money for the time being without officially declaring. Besides Beaman, other members include a dentist and two physicians. One said he was “really saddened” by the DesJarlais revelations.
“He went against medical ethics and the things we take into our oaths,” said Dr. Nate Schott, a Murfreesboro dentist and former chairman of the Rutherford County Republican Party. “I think there’s a deeper symptom that’s going on with Rep. DesJarlais, and I hope he’s able to find the help that he needs.”
Dr. Ron McDow, a retired Nashville family medicine physician, said it’s time for a change in Tennessee’s 4th District.
“If you want to have a relationship with a patient,” McDow said, “you need to dismiss them as a patient. ... Kind of a rule of thumb.”
Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said Carr’s announcement probably constitutes more than pondering a bid. The professor said the committee is likely to begin fundraising and encouraging Carr to run.
“Forming an exploratory committee is not quite throwing your hat in the ring,” Oppenheimer said, “but it’s taking the hat off your head and holding it like a Frisbee.”
Earlier, state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester filed DesJarlais’ 2001 court transcript with the Tennessee Department of Health. Investigators opened a “complaint file” against DesJarlais in November in response to an ethics complaint lodged by the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The American Medical Association says it’s misconduct for doctors to sleep with their patients.
Reacting to the Democrats’ document dump, Board of Medical Examiners member Nina Yeiser said more information is “better than nothing,” but she didn’t understand why Democrats got involved.
“We have investigators that get all that information on their own,” she said. “Why is the Democratic Party doing that?”
But Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said “we were fairly confident the health department didn’t have all the documents, and we wanted to be certain they did.”
Forrester said it’s important investigators see “DesJarlais’ own statements” under oath, charging DesJarlais “lied to the press, you [Times Free Press] in particular.”
During the campaign, DesJarlais acknowledged the accuracy of a transcript of a recorded conversation of himself and a patient with whom he had had an affair to get an abortion.
He said he was convinced she really wasn’t pregnant and didn’t know who had recorded the conversation.
But in the court transcript, DesJarlais said he and his then-wife had recorded the conversation. The woman, whom DesJarlais had treated briefly for a foot injury, testified she had been pregnant but wouldn’t discuss whether she had gotten an abortion. DesJarlais testified he didn’t think the woman was pregnant.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...